Setting trans fat limits in Kenya could save lives and cut costs – experts

Over the first ten years, the limit could save 2,000 lives and prevent 17,000 cases of heart disease

In Summary

•Trans fats, produced during partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils, are a well-known risk factor for heart disease. However, they can be substituted with healthier alternatives without affecting food quality.

•The WHO lists the elimination of industrial trans fats as an effective intervention for preventing noncommunicable diseases like heart disease. 

Celine Awuor, the CEO of the International Institute for Legislative Affairs.
Celine Awuor, the CEO of the International Institute for Legislative Affairs.
Image: MAGDALINE SAYA

Health advocates have urged food companies in Kenya to commit to the World Health Organization's (WHO) goal of a global ban on trans fats by 2023.

Research by The George Institute for Global Health indicates that restricting trans fats in food to WHO limits could save thousands of lives and reduce healthcare costs significantly.

The study, published in BMJ Global Health, modeled the impact of limiting industrially produced trans fats to less than two percent of total fats in the Kenyan food supply.

Over the first ten years, the limit would cost approximately $9 million (Sh940 million) to implement but could save 2,000 lives and prevent 17,000 cases of heart disease. This could result in a net saving of $40 million (Sh4.1 billion) to the Kenyan healthcare system.

"We acknowledge the strides made by the government through Legal Notice 115 of 2015. This legislation defines what trans fatty acids are and provides that for foods to be deemed free from trans fatty acids they should contain the amount permitted in the Codex Alimentarius which is a code of food standards for all nations," said Celine Awuor, CEO of the International Institute for Legislative Affairs (IILA).

She added: "While this is a remarkable effort to eliminate trans fats in Kenya's food supply, it poses an implementation challenge because the Codex Alimentarius does not provide a specific Industrially produced trans fats (iTFAs)  limit. To truly safeguard lives, we must adopt the WHO-recommended limit urgently."

Lead author and senior research fellow at The George Institute, Dr Matti Marklund, emphasised the urgency of action: "Our findings show that even in Kenya, where trans fat intakes appear to be relatively low, there could still be significant health and economic benefits to trans fat elimination. We urge food manufacturers to prioritise consumers' health by removing these dangerous fats from products," he said.

Implementing the WHO-recommended trans fat limit in Kenya today could save approximately 50,000 lives and prevent over 100,000 new cases of heart disease over the lifetime of the population. For every dollar invested, there would be a return of 20 dollars, amounting to net savings of $271 million (Sh28 billion).

Trans fats, produced during partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils, are a well-known risk factor for heart disease. However, they can be substituted with healthier alternatives without affecting food quality.

The WHO lists the elimination of industrial trans fats as an effective intervention for preventing noncommunicable diseases like heart disease.

It recommends setting a mandatory limit of 2g trans fat per 100g of total fat in all foods and banning the production and use of partially hydrogenated oils. In 2018, the WHO launched an initiative to help eliminate industrial trans fats globally by 2023.

Francesco Branca, director of the department of nutrition and food safety at the WHO said, “The evidence for the benefits of trans fat elimination is strong, but we understand many low- and middle-income countries face implementation challenges and are at risk of being left behind. In Africa, progress has been relatively slow compared to other regions."

The death toll from heart disease in Kenya has increased more than three-fold since 1990, a trend mirrored in other African countries. Globally, industrial trans fats are responsible for around 500,000 premature deaths from heart disease every year, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.

Dr. Tom Frieden, President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, said: “Kenya now has the opportunity to protect its people from this deadly additive, save lives and money, and join South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria as a leader in the drive toward a trans fat free Africa.”

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